The Word and the Monk's Heart
Today marks the Feast of St. Scholastica, who died in 542 A.D. She is best known as the sister, possibly twin, of St. Benedict, recognized as the father of western Roman monasticism and the author of the Benedictine Rule. She herself lived much of her life as an abbess, and was evidently very much the equal of her brother in theology and spiritual insight. The limited details we have about her life record that her brother visited her for one day a year, during which they discussed spiritual insights. Legend has it that Scholastica prayed to God to intervene when toward sunset her brother wished to return to his monks, as his new law required. God intervened with a violent storm, and the two conversed on spiritual matters throughout the night.
Benedict, Scholastica and the long tradition of the Rule and its observance by thousands of communities of men and women monastics have had a deep influence upon many individuals. Throughout the fifteen centuries of Benedictine life, the monastery has always served as that solitary location where a man or woman could step from the madness, the noise, and the distractions of the world and find the God who lives within. Wil Derkse, a married man with degrees in philosophy and chemistry, carries a deep attraction for the monastic life and is himself an oblate of his local monastery. His A Blessed Life: Benedictine Guidelines for Those Who Long for Good Days is a brief 110-page reflection on living in the world with a monastic heart. An Amazon reviewer of the book wrote: “I had no idea that the principles of monasticism could apply to an ordinary daily life. These principles have helped me toward a quieter, more balanced existence. Definitely worth reading and studying.”
Derkse has led several long retreats (three weeks or more) for lay persons wishing to understand the Benedictine charism of monastic living. He observes humorously that a number of his retreat alumni have written over the years to tell him that they left the monastery with a burning desire to de-clutter their residences. The monks treat their residence and property with great respect and a divinely inspired order (and without neurosis, I hasten to add.) We forget that Thomas Merton, America’s best known monk and man of letters, served as “forester” of his monastery’s large holdings in Kentucky.
Derkse observes that the first word of the Benedictine Rule is Audire or “Listen,” and this forms the spiritual and psychological ground of monastic health. Benedict himself believed that the quiet listener was all the healthier for it. Speech was sacred in his plan, but specifically a well-informed speech, the product of sacred reading, meditation, study, examination of conscience. When I see people on cell phones incessantly, I ask myself what they could possibly have to say that is anywhere near live giving or sustaining. Twelve times in his Rule Benedict warns of murmuratio, a type of conversation that needs no English translation here.
It would be a wonderful thing if every liturgist (or all catechists and ministers, for that matter) could participate in a monastic liturgy. I have had the chance on several occasions, and I was struck by its quiet but marked solemnity, its attention to the most basic gestures and rites, the ease of singing the psalms and hymns dating back 1500 years. Surprisingly, the Masses I have attended impressed me, too, with their brevity. The atmosphere of Mass comes from the life of the community, but even we guests were drawn into something we sensed was palpably sacred.
Derkse describes the monks as purposefully happy, as opposed to jolly. Praying, eating, peeling potatoes (the monasteries of my experience were meatless), studying, even sleeping—these are a folk who enjoy a profound satisfaction in being where God has put them. I do not mean to simplify the human complexities of such a life, but removed from unnecessary distraction the monk can better understand his unique demons and seek the abbot’s guidance. Interesting, too, is the daily schedule of study: every monk devotes a chunk of his day to the scholarship of the ages, from the Scriptures to Church Fathers to modern theological insight. Monastic prayer has roots; the monk speaks of what he has heard and read, not “what he feels,” a troubling tendency in current parish life.
The claim has been made that monks “run away from the real world.” Actually I think the reverse is true: monasteries are preserves of the only things that genuinely matter. Strive to keep the monk alive in your heart.
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